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Brachyelma spp. Painted tarantulas

Brachypelma, a genus of Tarantulas (Theraphosidae), is currently the only taxa of tarantulas listed on CITES. These large colorful spiders were exported in incredible numbers beginning in the early 1980’s with the explosion of the invertebrate “pet” industry. The numbers taken from the wild were so staggering that the entire wild population of the genus was becoming threatened.

This genus inhabits central and northern Mexico and infrequently can be found in the southwestern United States. These desert dwelling species are very slow growers who attain average leg spans of five to six inches. Captive females kept under ideal growing conditions may take ten or more years to mature and may live to be thirty years old. This is a slow growth rate and long life span compared to tropical species of Mygalomorphs who may grow to sizes over ten inches in as little as three years. Brachypelma are easy to collect in the wild as they are often found in large aggregations and live in burrows which are easily dug up or flooded.

Every species in this genus is listed as CITES II section A. As the law is written: Appendix II shall include: (A) All species which although not necessarily now threatened with extinction may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. This means that no member of the Brachypelma may leave Mexico unless accompanied by CITES permits.

The first species placed on CITES was Brachypelma smithi, in 1985 after an incredible increase in collecting for the pet trade greatly diminished wild populations. In 1994 nine more species in the genus were placed on CITES II section A as well. Currently fifteen species of Brachypelma and two species of Aphonpelma are covered under the CITES protection of the genus. B. vagans and B. albopilosum, two of the most popular pet species, are listed as threatened under CITES I. This convention means that the species are actually in danger of extinction caused by extensive over-collecting. Strangely, a large invasive population of B. vagans exists on a patch of land in Florida, and it is presumed that these spiders were released to set up a colony which could be collected from without intervention of the law.

Because of their large size, beautiful coloration, and docile nature, the Brachypelma are some of the the most sought-after in the pet trade. B. smithi, the Mexican red-knee tarantula is probably the most popular. Captive-bred spiderlings from this genus range in price from $12-$60+ on the wholesale market, while adult females can sell for $300-$1500.

Despite the efforts of the CITES program wild populations are now in decline due to habitat destruction, not to mention a large number of specimens still exported illegally. Thanks to captive breeding efforts none of the Brachypelma are in danger of going extinct because decents populations exist in captivity. However, there are some inherent problems with this. The genetic diversity of the captive population is finite. Eventually inbreeding, which is known to have an effect on spiders, will occur. Also, desert tarantulas are extremely important members of their ecosystems. These spiders dig burrows which other animals may come to inhabit, control insect populations, and are a critical part of the food chain as both small spiders and as adults. And let’s not forget their amazing good looks. Survival of wild populations is completely dependent on the protection of native habitat and the cessation of illegal collecting.


Locht A, Yanez M, Va'zquez I. 1999. "Distribution and NAtural History of Mexican species of Brachypelma and Brachypelmides with Morphological Evidence for their Synonymy". Journal of Arachnology 27:196-200

M'rabet, Salima Machjour, Yann Haenaut, roberto Rojo, sophie Calmae. 2005 "A Not so Natural History of the Tarantula Brachypelma vagans, Interaction with HUman Activity". Journal of Natural History 39: 2515-2523

Written by: Eric Denemark, 2006

Image credit: Eric Denemark